The weather is warming. The sun is shining. The trees are budding. Cherry blossom season is nearly here, D.C.’s rite of spring.
But, like last year, it won’t be normal.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage our region, this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, kicking off March 20, will be a mix of in-person and virtual events. Like 2020, officials are again trying to dissuade people coming in mass to the Tidal Basin to see the blossoms.
“This year it will not be safe for thousands of people to gather, as we have in years past,” John Falcicchio, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said at a press conference earlier this month.
But after a full year of the pandemic and a mentally draining winter, words don’t stand much of a chance against the reality that people will come to the Tidal Basin, particularly as the region’s vaccine rollout picks up steam.
And, let’s be honest, the Bloom Cam is not a perfect substitute for the real thing.
Last year, when the blossoms bloomed just days after the pandemic set in, officials pleaded with the public not to go to the Tidal Basin.
“Stay home,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at the time, “Don’t treat this like a normal weekend.”
It didn’t matter. People still showed up in droves to see the pink flowers. And, soon, access to the Tidal Basin was limited and, then, essentially shut down. This year, public officials are admitting that the same thing may happen again this year.
“I think what we learned from last year is that, at some point, it really gets hard to mitigate the crowds,” Falcicchio tells DCist/WAMU. “If a crowd gathering cannot be thinned out, then the potential is there for the area to be closed off [again].”
Falcicchio isn’t the only decision-maker signaling that there’s a distinct possibility the entire Tidal Basin may end up being closed off.
“We don’t want to have a repeat of last year,” National Park Service superintendent Jeff Reinbold said at a press conference on March 1. “Are there ways to let people in early in the morning or limiting access? Or is the prudent thing to do is just to close the entire site?”
In a statement to DCist/WAMU, NPS spokesperson Mike Litterst said the no decision has been made as of yet about how, when, and if the Tidal Basin will be open to visitors this year. NPS is currently “evaluating a full range of options and hope to make an announcement soon.”
Litterst also repeated the sentiment that 2020 was less than ideal.
“We want to avoid a repeat of last year, with large crowds gathering around the Tidal Basin, as the narrow walkways around [the Tidal Basin] do not provide ample space for social distancing and access points create choke points,” he wrote.
Still, after a year of the pandemic, it may be harder than ever to discourage people from taking a chance to get outdoors in the warmer weather, be among people, and latch onto a sense of normalcy. Dr. Suzan J. Song, an associate professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, says that many of her patients are experiencing such intense “pandemic fatigue” that they are taking more risks than they were at the beginning of the pandemic.
“People are just reaching this wall of being really burned out from the pandemic that it’s creating behavioral changes,” says Song. “They are saying,‘I’m so tired of being pent up at home that I just have to go out and experience life and I’ll take whatever happens.’”
Song works with kids who have experienced armed conflict and war. She says finding “markers of normalcy” for them is much needed. The blossoming of the cherry trees is an annual occurrence in D.C.: something that feels normal.
“It’s so important for people to have a sense that the world is a safe place, that it is okay and predictable,” she says.
The key difference in this situation, says Song, is that getting back to normal can carry risk. Her suggestion for people who are weighing to go see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin is to think deeply about what they are hoping to get out of the experience. If it’s getting outdoors and the social aspect, maybe arrange with a small group to see blossoms at a different, much less crowded section of the city, she says.
If it’s the normalcy, consider going very early in the morning when crowds are less likely to be an issue.
“The risk is in the details,” Song says.
(Published in dcist, photo courtsey of The National Cherry Blossom Festival)